2010 is in so many ways a year marked with mourning. Our staffroom this morning is filled with the sound of waling accompanied by music in low tones coming from the TV behind me. It is something so obvious; it seems silly not to mention it. For Korea it has meant the loss of the 46 sailors on board the Cheonan, fashion designer Andre Kim, celebrity suicides and today the breaths of two soldiers and two civilians on Yeonpyeong island have been barely cold for seven days. Back home, two of my friends lost one of their parents, and here in Ulleungdo we’ve suffered the loss of a middle school student in a kind of seasonal self-inflicted massacre: After the final exam paper, a fifteen year old girl puts down her pen, goes home and hangs herself as the persimmons ripen and turn red on skeletal trees, as the winter breeze blows away all the green on the island.
Many of us found ourselves swiveling in our office chairs last Tuesday to be met with the billowing pillars of black smoke rising from North Korea’s retaliation to military exercises near the Northern Maritime border as Yonhap news took us through each detail as it came in. This was the first time I really had an “oh bleep” moment since I’ve been in Korea. Never before has the North gone so far as to pelt rockets on to South Korean soil. I went home wondering if I shouldn’t perhaps start packing. I mean I wasn’t about to just run off, but I was urged by my dad to be prepared. I rummaged through countless reports on the ordeal and then I rummaged through my war education which adds up to my limited exposure to Hollywood war films and a recent trip to Hiroshima.
Then something Brechtian happened. The reality of suddenly being in the situation caused a kind of alienation to take place. Suddenly removed, there was an odd excitement. It didn’t seem real enough to be afraid, and it seemed too real not to consider. I gave up packing, but started carrying my passport around as if I had the choice to leave the island at whatever time of day I chose.
I’m not exactly a subscriber to War Games Illustrated, but I seem to have it that in tactics of war, larger cities are usually targeted as it usually delivers multiple blows to one’s enemy. A kind of two birds with one stone situation. It is an attack on the economy, infrastructure and administration all in a condensed area. This attack, on an island smaller than our own, suddenly jolted into mind the possibility that at any given moment we may be next. Of course, Ulleungdo is not quite as near the northern maritime border, and probably closer to Japanese interests than North Korean, but let us not forget that North Korea’s test missiles in 2009 flew over our heads.
Excitedly an American friend and I speculated about what the course of action should be in the event of an emergency, and if indeed there was an emergency. We compared and criticized the speed and wording of news reports and embassy statements. I was, as ever, ashamed of the quality of reporting coming from my own country. Regurgitations of other faulty reports riddled with factual errors and spelling mistakes. Not that CNN had such a firm grip on facts either. In this way, we have strategized and speculated about who will take which course of action and when…and outside our island and outside our peninsula, the outside world went on. The sun continued to rise and the tides continued to change.